Saturday, January 9, 2010

Yes, I am twenty

No, I have not vanished off the face of the earth; I am still in Japan. Today was a big "Coming Of Age" ceremony for those who turned twenty within the past year which is the official age of adult-ness in Japan. A while ago I received an invitation to be a part of this ceremony and I was very honored. The invitation was very official and my full name had been printed in Japanese. I went with my friends Cooper Wilson and Marissa Trierweiler and we were told to "dress appropriately." Thanks for being so clear Japan. Cooper and I pulled together some semblance of formal suits, Marissa donned her best formal-wear and we strapped on our helmets setting off for the Culture Plaza.

We made great time on our bikes but got a little lost when the directions Cooper had printed off told us to turn left at the canal. This led us down narrow paths and alleys, none of which ended up at the plaza. As dogs barked at us and people threw us judgmental glances, we could see the plaza over the fence and decided that if worse should come to worse, we would ditch our bikes and hop it. Finally, one last winding trail took us to the back entrance of the plaza's parking lot and we regained our composure, brushed off our shoes and set off calmly toward the front.

Our confidence in our "appropriate dress-wear" faded when a sea of Japanese people in beautiful kimonos and well cut suits flowed into the building. They had all arrived stylishly in their cars and met up with their friends who all looked great. I secured the loose button on my suit coat and we gracefully pushed our bikes toward the corral. After admitting that we all looked and felt like out of place shmucks, we gathered our courage and went inside.

Everyone's hair was done up spectacularly with glitter and flowers, people's kimonos shone with gold threads in their ornate silk patterns, new adults bustled around complementing each other on how wonderful they looked, and here were three white kids standing in the entrance looking somewhat haggard and all too uncomfortable.

We handed our invitations to someone near the door, she gave us complementary cell phone charms, chopsticks and a leaflet, and we shuffled off to the back corner to assess the situation. We had been invited to this special once in a lifetime ceremony and we had no idea what to expect. After a while of standing in admiration and confusion we decided it would be best to take our seats. This proved to be more of a process than I would have thought. We weren't sure if there were assigned seats or if we should randomly sit anywhere. There were guides who could help, but they avoided eye contact and pretended to be busy. After seeing a few other people who seemed to choose their seats at random we elected to adopt the same strategy. We walked down to the middle/front of a large auditorium and sat near the end next to two girls in a row alone. The thinking was that if we left seats between us, someone might have to awkwardly sit away from their group since we assumed the whole place would be filled. After a few moments of us beginning to relax in our seats, the two girls got up and moved to the row in front of us. As if we needed to feel more uncomfortable. Now we were underdressed foreigners sitting in a completely empty row of seats while every other seat in the place quickly filled. Eventually the ceremony started and four brave Japanese people were courageous enough to sit in our row.

What surprised me most about the ceremony was that the audience was never quiet. People gave speeches and there were nostalgic videos, people of importance were there, but everyone kept talking and laughing and texting throughout the ceremony. It was rather strange and I felt irate at everyone. "This would never happen in America," I thought. I have never been a part of such a disrespectful audience.

But it was cool nonetheless. There was a raffle and people won prizes ranging from a digital photo frame to two tickets to Universal Studios Japan. The city's mascot Hikonyan made an appearance and there was an opening brass band that played some Japanese song. Overall I was pleased to go, happy that I was invited and I at least got to see some pretty sweet kimonos.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A healthy dose of cynicism

It has been far too long since my last post, as I'm sure you have noticed. A month to be exact. I am sorry for not updating as frequently as I may have led you to believe; I get caught up in the weekly routine of classes and seeing the same people, blogging slides to the back burner. However, all is not lost. I am back.

I can't remember all of the things I have done since I last shared my experiences with you. I travel as much as I can, but this usually just takes me to Kyoto. Not to knock all that Kyoto has to offer, it is one of the largest cities in Japan with lots of temples and districts and things, but it gets a little repetitive. I would love to go to Tokyo again or go north to Hokkaido or south to Okinawa, each of these areas has a distinct culture different from where I am now. Sadly, however, going that far is very expensive and time consuming. I am just a student! So I try to make the most of what is around me. I've been attacked by deer in Nara, saw a few geishas in Kyoto's Ginza district, seen more temples and shrines than you can shake "juzu" at, and I have been beaten by a Buddhist monk while meditating. I suppose I should clarify that last one for you.

Sometimes I go on field trips to temples with my religion class. They have all been pretty worthwhile so far, I cannot say the same thing for my An/So class but that is irrelevant. The last temple we visited was a Zen temple where we were able to practice Zazen meditation. This was pretty sweet and I was angry at myself for not having brought my camera with me. We gathered in the main room of the temple and the monk that was in charge of the temple came and taught a group of 14 foreigners sitting awkwardly on pillows how to meditate like a pro. He even got us to fold our hands properly like Buddha himself and showed us how we should walk as we went to the meditation room. Then he mentioned something that piqued my interest. He said that if any of us looked sleepy, which seemed all too probable since we would be staring at a blank wall for half an hour, he would tap us on the right shoulder with a ceremonial looking wooden stick. We would be expected to then raise our hands in a prayer-like pose and lean to our left exposing our right shoulder. The monk then would raise his stick high above our head and swiftly strike us to bring our spirit back to meditation. I wasn't worried until I saw him demonstrate the typical way to do this on a pillow. I saw him very carefully and precisely raise the thick stick and hold it for a moment up behind his head. Then in an instant he unleashed upon the poor defenseless pillow. The sound echoed throughout the entire temple. We sat slack jawed in silence staring at the monk who had just showed us how he was to beat us. Then we heard him say, "don't worry, I will hit you all." He is a man of his word.

The meditating itself was rather difficult. I sat on my knees on a pillow and tatami mat facing a blank wooden wall about a meter in front of me. My hands were folded in my lap with my thumbs touching as I was instructed and I sat for thirty minutes. I could see in my peripheral vision the other kids who were squirming and twitching trying to get comfortable. I had made up my mind that I was not going to move a muscle for half an hour. I knew that sitting on my knees all traditionally would be quite unpleasant and I thought that this could be a nice opportunity for me to learn some physical discipline. Also, I had other concerns.

While sitting in silence staring at a wall I could see the shadow of something moving behind me. The monk was walking slowly behind us and I could see the shadow of the long stick he was holding in his hands. Every time he passed behind me my heart beat faster and I tried as hard as I could to appear both focused on nothingness and completely not asleep. Then the crack of the stick on some poor chump's shoulder shot through the room and I practically wet myself. I did however give some mental props to whoever had been struck as they did not cry out. I thought that might be because that person had been in too much pain to say anything, but I hoped that wasn't the case.

I lost track of time along with any feeling in my legs. Once the meditation began, the only thing that occupied my thoughts were of how uncomfortable I was. The unpleasant feeling in my legs then changed to pain, but I remained adamant that I was not to move. The pain morphed into a prickling then it felt as though my legs were turning to sand as the pain numbed and I lost feeling. After I couldn't feel my legs, there was nothing to mark the progression of time and I spent the rest of my inward journey trying to find patterns in the wood.

After I finally found that the wood knot looked a bit like a wicker basket another crack echoed through the room. I thought I would be able to make it through the session without a holy beating as I appeared completely aware of my surroundings and not at all about to fall asleep. But the crack I had just heard was one of many to come. Soon after another person felt the sting of Buddhism and a few seconds later, another. I then realized that he was literally going around the room and one by one striking us all. When he was three people away from me, my hands began to sweat and my heart was beating stronger. I saw out of the corner of my eye, him tap the person right next to me. She leaned over, and he struck. Then I felt two small, gentle taps on my back. I felt my stomach flip over. I felt my wet hands press together and I was leaning over to my left; my poor right shoulder about to be punished by a holy man and for a brief moment I took a look at my situation. Here I was, the circulation in my legs long since stopped, sitting toward a blank wall with my shoulder about to be struck by a Buddhist monk with a stick in Japan, a country quite different from my own, speaking a language that sounds like some sort of strange code, and I couldn't help but smile. It was, however, a brief sense of happiness cut short by a loud smack and a far too distracting stinging sensation. The monk behind me bowed and I bowed to the wall, and he moved on.

I have had lots of revelations like that. I really do love being here even though I am often homesick and miss Jillian, my family, and my friends. Many of the people here at JCMU are getting on my nerves, but some of that is attributed to the fact that they are the same forty people I see every single day. Also, the vast majority of them are arrogant anime nerds who act like they were wrongly taken from Japan at birth. Still, with all the things I miss and with the people I share most nothing in common with, I love Japan.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Super exciting amusement world

This is a little synopsis of how I have been since last posting. Fantastic. I have even been to a festival in Kyoto now, see Facebook pictures, and had an absolutely wonderful time there. My Buddhism class has started and my professor is super cool. Often, he makes references to John Lennon or someone like that and sings some of their songs to himself during class. It is super easy; I don't do any of the reading and I follow along just fine. There is also only one assignment which is a paper at the end of the term. Otherwise, there are four field trips and we only meet once per week. I wish American classes were like that. Oh, and he also invited me to go to the horse track with him this Sunday and bet on some horses. That will be a very interesting experience; I'm pretty excited.

I also have some sad news for all you devoted followers of my study abroad happenings: my smaller point-and-shoot camera will not properly connect to my computer and I am sad to say that you will have to wait until I return to America in February before you can see the first few pictures of Japan. But, you are all big boys and girls. You can handle it.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Buy Crunky

I have been in Japan for a month and a week and it took me this entire time to sum up the courage to try karaoke. It was something I heard was necessary to do if one was to spend a significant amount of time in the country and I also had threats against my family honor if I should return to America without singing terrible pop songs in a room full of Japanese people. And so, I sit here today having checked a big black mark on my list of things to do before I die.

It was an interesting experience. Earlier yesterday evening we had invited a number of our new Japanese friends to make and eat okonomiake, a pancake-esque food with lots of random vegetables and some meat. After everyone had eaten, we decided to ride down to a nearby karaoke bar and sing our hearts out. Upon arriving at the building we took an elevator up to the fourth floor and two of our friends spoke for some time with the people behind the counter. I couldn't quite understand why it took four people and ten minutes to arrange singing in a tiny room, but I learned to not ask questions.

After everything seemed to be sorted out, we were led to a small room with padded walls and floors all decorated in zebra print. I assume the padding was for insulation purposes. There were two rises in the floor like stadium seating so we could fit lots of people in and everyone could still see the TV. I must say, I was expecting a very nice, very large TV but what I got was a 32" Toshiba monitor.

There was a very thorough selection ranging from Michael Jackson to Linkin Park, Journey to Vanilla Ice, and a number of J-Pop stars that I had never heard of. I sang a bit and danced a little as well which seemed to entertain most of my new Japanese friends. Afterward they told me I was very good at dancing but I can't understand why since my dancing mostly resembles one of those giant waving tube-men that you see outside used car dealerships.

Though there is no story embedded within these descriptions, I thought I would kill two birds with one stone here as I both update my blog and announce to the world that I survived Japanese karaoke with plans to return again soon.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

He is not mermaid

Ok, so to pick up where I left off, I go to dinner that night to a place called Robata. It was quaint and wooden and we ordered a sampler meal. We thought this would be a small portion of all their foods arranged on a plate or something. Instead, we were in for one of the longest and most delicious meals we had ever had. Food kept coming from the kitchen and we weren't quite sure when and if it would end. I had anything from a big red snapper at the end of the meal to jellyfish at the beginning. All of it was tasty.

We did the typical touristy things in Tokyo wherein I ended up burning myself on an incense pot outside a temple. New stigmata? We can only wait to see. Then after seeing all we could see of Akihabara, Harajuku, and Ginza, we left the city of Tokyo to an outlying national park area called Hakone. There we stayed in a traditional japanese lodging where all we could do was sit and wait for the dinner we would have there. It was a long meal served to us in our room by a lady in a kimono who laughed when I said I spoke a little japanese. Jerk.

Everything tasted like fish. And not good fish, but slightly old and putrified fish. Even the fruit tasted somehow of fish. My aunt ended up expelling some of it into a toilet and the meal lost a bit of momentum after that. It was cool but pretty gross. The breakfast the next day had a painfully similar tone to the night before. We even thought the crustacean carcass found floating in our miso soup bore a striking resemblance to the crustacean we had eaten for dinner the previous night.

Leaving Hakone took me back to JCMU in Hikone. My mom came for lunch on friday which was nice. I really appreciated seeing her. After lunch, she left back for Kyoto to finish what was left of her vacation.

All in all, it was a great vacation. I really enjoyed the time off from studying and I got to go to one of the coolest cities in the world. However, I still hadn't met a japanese person who wanted to be my friend and I had been in this nation for almost a month. This completely changed yesterday when I went to a barbeque in Minami-Kusatsu. I had signed up for this without really thinking about it and I was annoyed that I had to be at the train station at 8:30 on a Saturday morning. We were never told how long it was supposed to go or what we could expect when we got there, so most of us who had signed up started wishing we could take it back.

We went anyway and just thought if it got really bad we would complain a lot and it would make us feel better. Our mood changed a little when we asked the college student who was in charge and who met us at the station what we could expect. "Well," he said, "we get there and there will be game to know each other." I rolled my eyes at another damn icebreaker game. "Then there will be lunch and another game after with map and surprise at end. Then there will be bee-bee-queue with tequila." Every single person looked at Yoshi and asked him to repeat the last little bit. Yes. Tequila. They are just going to give us tequila with out meat. How japanese of them.

So we get to the university that is hosting this barbeque. There are lots of japanese college students there and they break us into groups of four or five. Each group only had one american student. We played a few little games while Eminem and American Boy echoed through the speakers of the student center. One of the first friends I made was called Toppo and he was a giant. 188 centimeters tall, he asked if he would fit in in america. Cooper and he bonded over the distress that they feel in Japan.

The games and the treasure hunt that we heard about on the train were surprisingly fun with all the new japanese friends I met. I learned that japanese people really really reeaaallllly love taking and being in pictures. I heard shouts of "SHASHIN!!" and before I could register what was going on, I found myself in a group or with one other japanese person holding up the peace sign and smiling at three cameras that were flashing around me. I felt famous.

I also helped Toppo learn a little american slang. He had learned "fuck you" from movies and I thought it would be wise to instruct him on the proper uses and variations of this phrase. I did it a little too well as he started calling all his friends "motherfuckers." I also told him of the phrase "badass" and he seemed to really enjoy that one. Any time he did something remotely cool, he asked me if he was badass. Of course I had to say yes. What is more badass than a 6' 4'' Japanese college kid calling his friends motherfuckers?

When it was time for the barbeque I was starving and really looking forward to some beef and chicken. They had all sorts of sliced beef, chicken, pork, and vegetables like carrots and corn. All of it was delicious. Everyone was quite excited about the prospect of tequila but before anyone could leap toward the glass bottles, two more college kids came around the corner carrying cases of beer and plum wine. I really didn't expect this when I woke up. By now, I had met at least fifteen new japanese friends and they all wanted my facebook, email, or skype name and took pictures with me. I could only use my camera for three pictures before my memory card was full which made me sad, but if they find me on facebook everything will be fine.

While waiting for the food to cook, the college kids I had met asked me about american drinking games. I smiled and tried to explain two very popular games called Beer Pong and Kings. At the conclusion of this explanation one girl shouted "I want to try!" and the other kids all nodded eagerly in agreement. I couldn't help but laugh and I turned to Toppo to hear him say, "that's badass."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

I feel your glance at my status symbol

I'm so sorry to everyone whom I have kept waiting with baited breath for my next post. Yes, I feel terrible to keep you waiting a week and a half to hear what I have been up to in Japan. Therefore, I will get you up to date now! First, some explanations of things.

1) Flickr has a preset limit of how many photos I can post in one month. The fourteen photos I have currently available are taking up 47% of my limit. Since I cannot possibly limit myself to thirty pictures per month, I have decided to only post the best of the best on Flickr. Everything else will be put into a Facebook album.

2) Secondly, with regards to the photos, I have lost my cable that connects my small digital camera to my computer! No worries though, I have another one on the way, but it may take some time for me to get it in the mail. I'm sorry, but just imagine the intense joy you will all have when I unleash fire in a week or so.

Ok, shall we begin?

As most of you have probably gleaned from my current Japan Facebook album, I went to Hikone castle last Thursday. I am taking a class here at JCMU called Comparative Social Organization and Control: Japan and America. Quite an intimidating class name should merit some degree of difficulty. Instead, we go on field trips on Thursdays. So we tour the Hikone castle and museum which makes me realize, "hey! Hikone used to be super cool and war-like!" Who doesn't love that? Anyway, I took 150 photos and posted many of them on FB.

That weekend marked the beginning of what is known in Japan as "Silver Week." Following the weekend there were three holidays: Monday was People's Day, Tuesday was Respect for the Elderly Day, and Wednesday the people of Japan celebrated the Autumnal Equinox. Sweet. This just meant no school for five days. After class on Friday, I took the train to Tokyo and met my mother and aunt to spend some time with them during the break. However, the train ride did not go quite as planned.

I would need to go to Kyoto in the west before heading south-east to Tokyo on the Shinkansen (bullet train.) I mistakenly got on the local train to Kyoto which would take a large number of hours that I was not ready to spend. I thought to myself, "No problem! I will just get off at the next rapid train stop and get on an express train." But, I screwed up. I ended up getting off at the wrong stop where only local trains came and I ultimately had to wait an extra 45 minutes to get on the same train I had just departed. No matter. I eventually board the proper vehicle and am off to Kyoto.

While waiting for the express train an interesting occurrence took place. A small, shuffley old lady wearing a floral shirt and a floppy hat came up to me and asked in a raspy voice if I was a foreigner. Slightly confused, I said politely, "yes I certainly am." She laughed at me and sat down, proceeding next to try to converse with me. Completely in Japanese no less. I could tell most of what she said were not questions and so I would just nod and smile. If she laughed, I would chuckle too, though she was just probably laughing directly at me and my failure to comprehend more than 2% of what she said. She did, however, ask if my parents were well; how old I was, which shocked her to find out that I was not 16 but twenty; if I had a girlfriend; and what I thought of her. I told her my parents are doing fine, I have a wonderful girlfriend currently in Germany, I found her to be quite interesting for an 85 year old lady and that she had quite a bit of spunk. She kept telling me that I was handsome and had a big smile, which I wasn't really sure what to do with. I would laugh and say, "no no no," which is what one should do in Japan, but she just kept pressing. Eventually she wished me well and we got on separate train cars.

The rest of my journey to Tokyo was rather unremarkable until I stepped foot outside of Tokyo station. Alone and mapless I was left mainly to my own wit and cunning to find my way to a hotel that my mother was in. I saw a white man on his Blackberry and I asked the nice english speaker which way was Ginza, the district wherein I knew the hotel to be. Well, he lied and pointed in the wrong direction. So here I was, wandering around Tokyo at night trying to find my mother. By some miracle, I found a map and looking at it for a while, noticed that around the corner was my destination! Win.

A lot happened over the break while I was in Tokyo and nearby areas. I will keep you tentatively wondering what they may be since my post is going to end here. Don't fret, tomorrow you should get another post. Think of this as a "to be continued..."

Monday, September 14, 2009

Who wants gyoza?

So I have taken a few pictures of silly Japanese things with my small, point-and-shoot digital camera and I was all ready to upload them for you all, but guess what I forgot. Yes, the tiny yet crucial cord that connects that camera to my computer. Don't fret everyone, I will get it soon but until that comes I thought I would recount a rather embarrassing and pathetic story about when I wanted gyoza. These are little dumplings that are quite fantastic and I had a great craving for some.

Keep in mind two things: this actually happened about a week ago and since then my confidence and ability to speak the language has slightly improved; also Japanese people don't handle bluntness well. Ok, let's begin.

So Cooper and I found a place on our map that was said to be a gyoza restaurant. We had trouble before looking for restaurants on our bikes so we decided to memorize the name of the place, write the Kanji for gyoza down and take the map with us just incase we still failed. With all these precautions, we still failed. There was no sign that said 'gyoza' nor a very clearly written name of 'Oshu.' There was, however, a pretty happening joint that we had passed earlier and we decided to head back and eat there.

Inside we see people all in the same black and white uniform rushing about very dramatically and the patrons were sitting at their tables or at the bar, stuffing food into their pie-holes and acting rather un-japanese-like. Sometimes one of the workers would fly over to a microphone, shout something quite abrasively into it in Japanese before returning to their missions. Cooper and I saw a small podium with some paper and a pen on it. Without thinking, almost instinctively, we walked over to it, wrote "Wilson" in Japanese, circled what we assumed was 'table' and 'two people,' and sat down on a bench to wait. Proud that we unquestioningly did what we thought we were supposed to do we felt our pride crushed as two people came in to the restaurant and struck up a conversation with the person behind the register! "What is going on?! What did we just do? Were we supposed to talk to the person behind the register instead of writing on that paper? What did we just sign up for?!" Our brief moment of panic was subsided when a man in uniform arrived quite abruptly and said, "WIRUSON-SAN!" Cooper leapt up and yelled back, "HAI!" Slightly frightened, this person nevertheless led two stupid white kids to a table.

Just as we were sitting down, he let out a flurry of Japanese words, one of which I thought was "sake." I did not want sake, so I said back to him, "mizu dake." This just means, "water only." That's it; nothing polite or humane about it. He looked at me confused for a moment before gesturing to the table and saying, "menu," very slowly. Then he slid a pitcher of water that was already on the table to me and cast me one last disdainful look as he turned to leave. He had left a sheet of paper on the end of the table with a grid and lots and lots of japanese words that neither Cooper, nor I could even begin to read. "Shit. What the hell are we supposed to do with this? Do we put our order on it? How do we know where to put it?" I had cleverly decided to spy on the family next to us to see what they do with it. Casually, I looked over and noticed the waitress was marking something on it. Thank GOD we don't have to deal with it!

We eventually decide what we want from the menu thanks to a few pictures of bowls of meat and stir-fried vegetables. I also noticed they had gyoza! What a victory! I put the menu back and we clean off the table, clearly ready to order. Well, not clear enough. Five minutes pass by and we wonder where our server is. After twenty minutes and wondering how to distinguish the wait staff from the host staff from the bussers, I make up my mind again to watch newly seated customers summon service. I watch two men walk into the place, get seated, pull out a menu, when all of a sudden food appears! Somehow food was brought to them when I clearly saw no one take an order! Thinking this is a fluke, I watched two more parties sit, look at the menu, and have food delivered! This happened three times and the mystery of how to order lingered on!

Cooper decided to man up and leaned over to someone cleaning the table next to us. "Excuse me," he said in Japanese, "we are stupid foreigners. How does food come?" The lady understood we wanted to order and she knelt down by the sheet of paper. We had noticed on the menu a slightly larger number next to the price of each item with a strange symbol next to it. Curious, Cooper tried to ask what the symbol meant. An avalanche of Japanese came roaring at us wherein we caught nothing. Not yet defeated, Cooper tried to rephrase his question only to be met with another onslaught of linguistic fury. While the lady was talking, I thought I should offer some help, but I didn't really know what I was saying. I leaned over the table, pointed to the price and said, "chigau!" This just plainly means, "wrong!" Realizing my error I looked up to meet the second face of confusion and annoyance at my existence. I sat back in my seat and slowly took a drink of my water that I so clearly demanded earlier that night. The woman turned her head from me and angled herself directly to Cooper, cutting me off with her shoulder. She talked one more time while Cooper pretended to understand what she said. Finally, we ordered two stir-fries and some gyoza. She left in a strikingly similar fashion the man earlier had done.

Later, a third person came and delivered our food. As she turned to return to her job, I noticed I didn't have my gyoza that I had so much wanted. I didn't quite know how to ask for it and in a state of panic I just shouted, "Gyoza!" And there was number three! This person walked back over to the rude, asinine gaijin who just shouted food at her, made a crude mark on the paper and got my gyoza. When she returned I tried to thank her as politely as I could, but that most likely just made things worse. Suffice it to say, that night was not one of my finer Japanese experiences.